In July 2016, a community member filed a complaint about one of our officers.
The officer had attended a community meeting wearing his full uniform, which included a badge, utility belt, handcuffs, a flashlight, his radio and his firearm.
The gun was the problem.
The person said she felt threatened by the firearm. But because no policy violation was alleged, there was no internal affairs investigation.
This complaint was not sent to St. Paul’s Police Civilian Internal Affairs Commission (PCIARC) for review, although people who read the July 10 counterpoint “Community feedback confirms a problem with St. Paul police” by former PCIARC commissioners Constance Tuck and Rachel Sullivan-Nightengale would be led to believe that it should have been.
While I share the erstwhile commissioners’ interest in ensuring that officers follow department policy, I must point out that many of their assertions are wrong.
The PCIARC is not a tool for mining possible officer misconduct.
As city ordinance makes clear, its purpose is to give the community a voice in how “complaint investigations concerning members of the police department” should be handled.
The PCIARC is not a pickax designed to excavate allegations of misconduct from the solid work our officers do on a daily basis. It’s a commission charged with reviewing investigated complaints and making recommendations to me — and it’s critical to our ongoing efforts to galvanize community trust through transparency.
In the last three years, we’ve pulled back the curtains on our Police Department, releasing never-before-seen traffic stop data, publishing the first ever Use of Force Report, incorporating community input into our use of force policy and working to ensure that PCIARC works for the community, officers and our department.
We’ve done this because I know and understand why some distrust law enforcement, and transparency is one way to build trust.
I also know that our officers are the best. They respond to 280,000 calls for service each year, have guns pointed at them, comfort children whose parents have done the unthinkable to one another, enforce traffic laws, find help for those who it seems society would rather forget, track down stolen bikes, investigate rapes, save the lives of people who have been shot, run into the shadows to catch people who shoot — and still manage to meet our high expectations the vast majority of the time.
The survey results confirm that our community overwhelmingly feels officers deliver trusted service with respect. Of the 2,457 results submitted, our average score is a 4.32 (out of 5).
I’m proud of our officers. They are the rocks on which people depend during tragic times. They put their lives on the line so that everyone in our great city can sleep in peace at night and pursue their dreams on a daily basis.
Do officers sometimes make mistakes? Yes, because they’re human.
And the PCIARC, which is run by the Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO), plays an important role when complaints are filed. That’s why we’ve worked hard — in partnership with Mayor Melvin Carter, the City Council, the city attorney and HREEO — to improve the commission.
We’ve proven time and again that we’re willing to work — within the law — to refine the process.
Once again we stand ready to ensure complaints are dealt with fairly and with due regard for community members and officers equally, within the confines of both the Police Officer Discipline Procedures Act and the city ordinance.
We were aware of the former commissioners’ ideas for improving the PCIARC and are in the process of adding a plain-language disclaimer on the Community Feedback website, documenting follow-up contacts to survey respondents and adding a link to the PCIARC website.
What we cannot do is treat our officers as if they have no rights. It’s not fair to our officers and it’s not what the PCIARC was designed to do.
If it were, right now they’d be poring over complaints that clearly could not result in discipline, such as the complaint filed against the officer for following policy by wearing his uniform.
Presumption of innocence is critically important to the fabric of our society. I will not sacrifice it for anyone, not community members and certainly not our police officers.
Todd Axtell is chief of police in St. Paul.